Why has the Jewish Community put up barriers to conversion in the past?

What happens when we are welcoming?

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Rabbi Copnick  is a Governor of the multi-denominational Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din (rabbinic court) in Los Angeles and serves as a Dayan (rabbinic judge)) for conversion.

Image credit: https://www.chabad.org/library

Once the growing number of those who express the desire to convert to Judaism have taken this life-changing step, they are no longer called converts. They are simply Jews, often referenced with the honorific “Jews-by-choice.” During the conversion process, they take Hebrew names, sometimes commemorating known Jewish ancestors in previous generations.  Since its inception in 2002, California’s Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din (a rabbinic court using the awe-inspiring facilities of American Jewish University’s mikveh  (ritual immersion) in Los Angeles), has celebrated 500 conversions.

Traditionally, the Jewish religion has not sought converts. In fact, through the ages, a prospective convert has usually been required to ask a rabbi three times before being admitted to the conversion process, and the course of study is long and difficult. What is so remarkable about the Sandra Caplan Bet Din is its welcoming attitude to would-be Jews. Why put obstacles in their way? Jews-by-choice strengthen our community.

Who are these Jews-by-choice?

If we take a look at only seven profiles of people who became Jews-by-choice between 2002 -2017, their occupations range from a communicator for tribal government to a television producer, a graduate student in clinical psychology, a health educator, a woman in the fashion industry, an advertising and marketing professional, and a stay-at-home mom of two young boys.  They come from different backgrounds and cover a range of ages, including infants. But they all have one thing in common: a strong desire to join the Jewish people, spiritually, religiously, and with their own communal efforts. They are willing to dedicate themselves to studying Jewish history, religion, tradition, festivals, customs and, finally, sponsored by a rabbi familiar with their personal journey, an interview by three designated Dayans (rabbinic judges). Once they show that they are determined to undertake Jewish life, and, to make a Jewish home for themselves, their children or for those in their care, they are invited to make a Statement of Commitment to Judaism, to immerse themselves in the sanctified waters of a mikveh, and then be welcomed as Jews. Today, these seven people, represented by initials here, whose families are not Jewish, are all Jews-by-choice.

Usually, their birth families are not Jewish. It’s a huge decision to convert, even if they are planning to marry a Jewish person. Why do they do it? Is it the need for connection, the pull of the community, the sense of belonging, the social action focus? Most don’t anticipate the mystical power of the mikveh experience. Sometimes there are unexpected happenings.

C.B. explains that she had always felt a strong connection to what she calls “my Jewish soul.” It had always been a part of me, she says. “When I converted, when I emerged from the mikveh, “I was no different from the way I had always been.” Still, the road to becoming a Jew took different forms – studying with a rabbi one-to-one, participating in small study groups with others who wanted to become Jews, just thinking it through. Even then, it took a couple of years before she felt “ready” to enter the mikveh with her young daughter. The experience was “as indescribably exciting as the day I gave birth to her,” she remembers.

For C.R., a political and non-profit consultant, who is married with two children, a son and daughter, it was also “a peak life moment” when she entered the mikveh with her twelve-year-old daughter who wanted to have a Bat Mitzvah, the ceremonial moment of accepting adult responsibility for following the tenets of Jewish life.  “She needed to be a Jew,” C.R., says simply. As for herself, she experienced “an immediate and powerful sense of belonging” when she converted to Judaism. She was already active at her Temple, serving on its Board.

The mikveh experience was also especially important to J.H., who runs a fashionable clothing boutique for women. She claims that, although she really didn’t know what to expect, it turned out to be “the most spiritual, uplifting moment of my life. Without a doubt, the high point of my conversion process was my experience of the mikveh. I came away feeling renewed and grounded. For the first time in a long while, I finally felt all the pieces of my life fit together perfectly.” She has taken the Hebrew name of her great-grandmother, who was Jewish. And, for J.H., the biggest surprise of all has been the “warm reception” she has been receiving from the Jewish community.

But, for P.D., a former teacher, there was no single moment that defined her conversion experience. Every single step along the way was important, she explains, helping her to reframe her past and contributing to the whole: from her initial decision to convert, to the classes she took with a rabbi, to the conversational encounter with three rabbis composing the “court” of the Bet Din. The rabbis asked why she wanted to convert and determined her motivation and educational and emotional readiness to take this big step. And afterwards? “It’s amazing,” she told us, “how attached I feel to Israel.” P.D. is already active in a number of Jewish organizations, among them AIPAC, JNF, and David Adom.

Among the Jews-by-choice – as among the Jewish people — are those of varied races, such as K.S., who is Japanese by birth but was adopted by a Jewish, Caucasian mother. K.S. particularly appreciates Judaism’s focus on education, history, and culture. The call to right action resonates deeply with him. He claims that, although his own self-introspection led to his eventual conversion, he loves “the focus on action” in Judaism, along with “the way of being.”

For B.D., the busy television producer, the restfulness of Shabbat was the determining factor in his decision to convert. Just to leave the work week behind and transition into Shabbat was bliss for him. Although his spiritual path has been very personal, he claims, he also loves the community aspect of Judaism. With his outgoing personality, he thoroughly enjoys hosting Passover Seders, for example, and, with his regular attendance at Shabbat services, he looks forward to greeting familiar faces.

The communal aspect of Jewish life is a big thing for many Jews-by-choice. J.S. calls it “experiencing the unspoken community,” something he had been looking forward to for a long time because he knew he had Jewish ancestors. It felt like he had finally come to his “true community.” He also values receiving his Certificate of conversion because “it was the culmination of all my striving.”

There were also some unexpected surprises for some of the Jews-by-Choice. J.L., who is a health educator, did not expect her birth family to be so accepting of her choice. “They were so happy and excited about my connection to God and spirituality. It rekindled their own connection to a spiritual path.” It was so wonderful to have her family with her all the way. J.L. loved sharing with them the studies of history and literature that preceded her conversion. In particular, she appreciated the emphasis on Social Justice. She has become an active member of her congregation.

As Shavuot approaches this weekend, when Jews everywhere stand symbolically on Mount Sinai together, as if receiving the Ten Commandmens in the present tense, we are also connecting to the preceding generations, And as Jews-by—chioice stand with us, they strengthen our community. Welcome!

 ©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.